How NGO Partnerships Have Changed Over 20 Earth Days

How NGO Partnerships Have Changed Over 20 Earth Days

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Back around Earth Day 1990, the Rainforest Alliance (RA) could only recruit one multinational company to work with. In those days, big business often viewed NGOs with suspicion.

Today, 20 Earth Days later, the group partners with four of the five largest tea companies in the world, along with major players in chocolate, coffee, home furnishings, office supplies and tourism, according to Executive Director Tensie Whelan.

"In 2010, collaboration with the Rainforest Alliance and other members of civil society is an asset," Whelan said, "not a liability."

Over the last several decades, the relationship between NGOs and companies has steadily evolved from conflict to cooperation. That's not to say the tension has completely dissipated -- it hasn't -- but businesses have realized they need NGO support for what has become a competitive issue. At the same time, NGOs understand that major change can't be achieved without the business community.

"What's changed fundamentally is that these aren't just defensive strategies," said Glenn Prickett, chief external affiars officer at the Nature Conservancy. "What the leading companies are doing is asking how can we do better as a business by embracing the environmental movement, being part of the solution."

Over the last 20 years, NGOs -- Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Nature Conservancy, in particular -- have heavily invested in understanding business and the operational options they have in terms of making business more sustainable, according to Aron Cramer, CEO and president of BSR.

"They have had to become more rigorous and more able to provide practical assistance to companies," Cramer said. "There has been a parallel development on the business side, where the knowledge and sophistication has also grown as they explore developing their capacity for learning how to derive real value from their sustainability investments."

Major corporations have had environmental advocates for years, but it's only been recently that they've been given their due, said Michael Kinsley, senior consultant with Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI).

"Twenty-seven years ago, most were marginalized in their companies," Kinsley said. "Now, they are in influential positions within corporations because they can provide strong business value and prove the economic case."

Early pioneers made the case for why NGOs and business partnerships could improve their environmental performance without increasing expenses. On its website, EDF points to its work with McDonald's in 1990 as the first collaboration between an environmental group and a leading corporation. EDF said it doesn't accept money from corporate partners, but others do.

EDF and McDonald's focused on cutting waste and conserving resources, eventually leading to McDonald's shifting to paper-based sandwich wrap packaging and incorporating significantly more recycled content in its paper products.

Additional companies and NGOs tested the waters. For example, Rainforest Alliance and it first multi-national partner, Chiquita, began working together in 1992, eventually certifiying all of the company's banana farms, in addition to 90 percent of its independent producers.

"This led to a complete transformation of their production practices, resulting in reforestation, improved working conditions, reduction of chemical use, increased yields, improved water quality, etc.," Whelan said in an email message.

It took years for these and other ideas espoused by environmental groups to become mainstream.

"What was regarded as heretical 25 years ago is now a given as far as many are concerned," said RMI's Kinsley. "The very idea that green solutions could be good for business and the economy didn't occur to many, and now an increasing number understand."

Cramer of BSR recalls the common inquiry he used to receive from businesses: Why do sustainability? Then they asked: How do you do it?

"Now they ask us, 'How do you do it and make it pay off?'" Cramer said. "It's less about changing attitudes then getting things accomplished. Partnerships have matured to help realize this vision."

Companies of all stripes have become more receptive to the benefits of reducing the environmental impacts, such as improved efficiency and brand-building, with the help of NGOs.

"We've always pursued these relationships so from our perspective nothing has changed," said Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation. "What has changed is that companies beyond the usual suspects have realized the value of these partnerships and so many more of them are forming."

In 1998, Starbucks joined Conservation International to work on a local project with coffee growing communities in Mexico, eventually growing into a global collaboration on the company's entire coffee sourcing program. CI eventually opened the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business.

"Since establishment of CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business in 2001, we have worked with leading companies in key industries – energy, forestry, food and agriculture, retail, financial services, mining, fisheries, travel and leisure, and others – to shape green practices and supply chain innovations," said Justin Ward, CI's vice president of business practices. 

Greenpeace over the years has staged a number of high-profile direct actions aimed at drawing attention to corporate practices that harm the environment. In 2004, however, it engaged with the electronics industry to make their supply chains greener, remove toxic chemicals, address climate change and take responsibility for e-waste.

"Through toxic chemical testing, exposure of illegal e-waste transfers, and promotion of greener alternatives, Greenpeace has catalyzed improvements to the environmental and health performance of companies like Apple, HP, Sony, Nokia, Philips, and others," said Daniel Kessler of Greenpeace, which was founded in 1971 one year after the first Earth Day.

The group has no permanent friends or enemies, Kessler said. "If a company is doing the right thing, we are proud to stand up with them to advocate for solutions."

"If they are doing the wrong thing," he said, noting Greenpeace's longstanding opposition to Nestle's sourcing of palm oil, "we can campaign against them all around the globe to bring enough pressure to bear that they are forced to do the right thing."

The concept of sustainability then received a huge shot in the arm when some of the business community's biggest players publicly threw their hats into the ring, such as Walmart with its green agenda and GE and its ecomagination program.

"When you have these two blue chip icons do this at the same time, it got people to take notice," said Prickett of the Nature Conservancy.

Very few large businesses address sustainability without some degree of partnership, said BSR's Cramer. "I don't think any company serious about addressing environmental issues today would do so without the help of NGOs."

Hollender, of Seventh Generation, concurred.

"Think sustainable palm oil," he said. "It's gaining ground because NGOs are working with businesses who are working with farmers, labor unions and governments. Everyone's on board and with all perspectives represented, the solutions emerging from the process have a much better chance of working."

Whelan believes businesses will continue following the examples set by leading companies that have committed to sustainability.

"It takes time to change practices, but one day we believe that investing in sustainability will be seen as a basic cost of doing business," she said. "Those that don't participate will lose their market share and, ultimately, their license to operate."

Looking ahead to the next decade, the road gets harder from here, said Ward of CI.

"For instance, how can the world boost agricultural output to meet the food needs of a growing population without expanding crop production destructively into remaining critical ecosystems?" Ward said. "Now more than ever, corporate-NGO partnerships are needed to catalyze effective responses to address climate change, degradation of freshwater resources and other threats to the ecosystem services that are fundamental to the well-being of humanity."